<
>

Kyrie Irving, at Kobe Bryant's behest, ready to 'step up'

Kyrie Irving has averaged 24.8 points on 51.7 percent shooting through the Cavs' first five games in March. David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- After Kobe Bryant played the Cleveland Cavaliers for the final time on Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers' legend provided a parting take about the state of the Cavs.

"You have to have that inner conflict," Bryant said. "You have to have that person that's really driving these things. From the Cavs' perspective, it's hard for me to tell from afar who should be that person. LeBron [James] is not that person. LeBron, he's a ... he brings people together. That's what he does naturally. He's phenomenal at it. But you have to have somebody else who's going to create that tension. Maybe it's Kyrie [Irving]."

Cleveland's point guard, who idolized Bryant when he was growing up, thinks he can indeed be the straw that stirs the Cavs' drink.

"It's in my personality, I would agree with that," Irving told ESPN.com before Cleveland practiced on the campus of UCLA on Saturday.

"I think if one of the greatest players to play our game and has had championship runs and has been on teams where he's either been that or he's been the guy that has been the emotional voice of the team and holding guys accountable, I think he said it best. I think that in order for our team to be where we want to go, I have to step up and be that other leader on our team other than LeBron. So, I would agree with that. It's definitely in my personality. It's taken me a few years to kind of grow into that and kind of earn my teammates' respect and also hold myself accountable when I'm out there."

Irving is in his fifth season and turns 24 this month. James is a 13-year veteran and 31 years old. They are in vastly different stages of their careers, yet teaming together for the common goal of winning a championship. It's accelerated Irving's aging process.

"I have to grow up quick, especially with this team. In order for us to be successful, I have to be a lot older than what my years show," Irving said. "So, it's been a learning experience since Day 1 that Bron has come back and being a championship-caliber team, I've had to grow up quick. It hasn't been perfect. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way, but one thing I can bank on is when I get it, I get it and we get rolling. That's the way it should be. It's taken time but I'm definitely assuming that role of being one of the guys that's the other voice other than LeBron and [Tyronn Lue]."

The Cavs' coach has seen the dynamic play out between his stars and still pegs it as more of a mentor-mentee relationship than peer-to-peer.

"It gives him a chance to learn from someone who has won two championships, been to the Finals six times," Lue said. "He's been arguably the best player in the league for seven, eight years in a row. Having that type of guy around you every single day to help mold you to what you're trying to do and that's winning. Kyrie has taken to it greatly. I think he likes having LeBron around and teaching him different things that we need to do to become champions."

Irving missed the first 24 games of the season while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured left kneecap. He's only been back on the floor for three months after being sidelined for six months.

"I don't think people realize that," Irving said of the relatively short time frame since his return. "I think that people just expected me just to be this guy again that I was last year and it took time, and I understood that. So I never really rushed it. I never really wanted to get ahead of myself and come back and say 'I'm back' to where I was. I never wanted to rush that process. So I feel like over the last few games, it's been feeling really good in terms of my legs and me working out, and I'm feeling really good. Just getting a lot of extra reps in, a lot of extra work in and just trying to feel good going into the playoffs."

Irving has improved every month since he was worked back in the lineup, from 13 points on 34 percent shooting in December to 17.2 points on 44.4 percent shooting in January to 23.1 points on 50.2 percent shooting in February to 24.8 points on 51.7 percent shooting through the Cavs' first five games in March. His assists average and 3-point percentage have also been on a steady incline.

"You get hurt, you're out that long, having a major injury like that and sometimes you have doubt," said Lue. "When you come back and you're not playing the way you're capable of playing or how you played in the past and it takes you a while, maybe two, three months to finally get your legs, get your rhythm and get back to being the way you used to be. I think now just seeing him able to do that, he feels better about himself and feels more confident."

He's also pragmatic. Just like he had to have patience in his recovery, he isn't putting undue pressure on his team as it comes together.

"We don't have the prototypical journey that every team has had," Irving said. "We've made very big changes. We've had injuries. We've had a lot of things that have kind of stopped that process and [prevented us from being able] to show progress as fast as every other team. I feel like with Golden State and the Spurs, they've had a continuous progress in gaining that chemistry year after year. With us, we've had to figure it out and all of the sudden we're a championship contender based on our talent. And building a team, it takes way more than that and we understood that, so a lot of us had to learn a lot quicker than the prototypical team that you put together. So for us, we just have to value every single day like we've been doing. There's been a lot of rocky ups and downs but for us, I think we would do better than any other team that would put together a team full of All-Stars and tell them to go out there and just win a championship. So, it's cool. We'll get it."